Ghana’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections were presided over by the country’s first female chair of the Electoral Commission (EC). Mrs Charlotte Kesson-Smith Osei, a 45-year-old lawyer who chaired the National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) before being appointed in June 2015 to head the EC. Mrs Osei’s replaced Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, who had chaired the EC since 1993 and supervised four general elections. Widely acclaimed as one of Africa’s leading election managers, Dr Afari-Gyan’s reputation was somehow tainted when a protracted presidential election petition which lasted for eight months, culminating at the highest level of the nation’s justice system, the Supreme Court, exposed fundamental weaknesses in Ghana’s electoral system, triggering calls for electoral reforms ahead of the 2016 elections.
The EC’s performance in the December 2016 polls has been applauded as the most successful election Ghana has held since the return to constitutional rule in 1992, with the National Peace Council, for example, scoring it a B+. However, the EC’s new chairperson has not escaped some criticism for the way certain aspects of the elections were handled, by political commentators and analysts on TV, radio, and social media.
To be fair Osei inherited an EC whose credibility was at its lowest in recent history. However, a number of administrative shortcomings also contributed to the criticisms against her and her management of the electoral process. First, in the aftermath of the hotly-disputed 2012 election results, the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) had called for the compilation of a new voters’ register. The outright rejection of the opposition’s demand by the EC did not sit well with certain sections of the political class who strongly felt that the voters register had been deliberately tampered with. They subsequently took their case against the EC to court. Most courts disagreed with the EC’s decision, including a Supreme Court ruling that asked the Commission to ‘clean up’ the voters register and another ruling asking it to implement other reforms mandated by the Court following the 2012 election petition judgment. Second, a costly rebranding exercise of the EC in the election year generated public outcry over misplaced priorities and a waste of resources. Third, the disqualification of 13 presidential nominees from contesting the elections for violating aspects of the electoral law led to another court battle for the EC, and was won by three of the disqualified candidates.
Several allegations were also levelled against Osei, mostly aimed at casting aspersions on her credibility and ability to act as a neutral electoral umpire. Accusations ranged from claims of trading sex for her position, incompetence and corruption. Her traducers resorted to social media, including a ‘SACK Charlotte Osei, as EC, NOW’ Facebook page and several sexist WhatsApp jokes and images. The appointment of Ghana’s first female EC chair undoubtedly confounded traditional notions about who should hold such a sensitive top-level public office, and raised questions about how well she could perform. As a female umpire in a macho political context that is characterized by patriarchy and gerontocracy, it was difficult for some to repose confidence in the prospects of a relatively young Osei successfully running the EC, as did her long-serving male predecessor.
This explains some of the cynical comments about her incompetence after the EC made mistakes, reversing itself on an earlier announcement of wrong low voter turn-out figures, and an earlier report of the hacking of the EC’s computer system, coupled with the delay in the declaration of election results. Statements that followed the delayed announcement of election results were punctuated with sexist comments and images on social media depicting Osei as impervious to criticism. Others cynically alleged that she was too preoccupied with her appearance and results were delayed due to her taking time to apply her make-up prior to announcing the elections results.
However, in spite of such snide comments, it is quite evident that Osei successfully presided over elections that were widely acclaimed and accepted as free, fair and credible by the Ghanaian electorate and the international community. She has for now silenced her critics by demonstrating that gender has no impact on her capacity to lead Ghana’s electoral management system and conduct credible and transparent elections in one of Africa’s model electoral democracies.